Mortal Kombat is a survivor. Back in the early '90s, the fighting series started out in arcades as one of the first viable alternatives to the juggernaut that was Capcom's Street Fighter II. The original game had a distinctly gritty feel that aimed for photo-realism mixed with fantastic scenes of unprecedented gore. Over the years, it became a gigantic mythos, spawning movies, action figures, comic books, cartoons, and even a live-action TV show. But even though the series expanded outside the video game realm, the core product's quality waned. Many people still regard Mortal Kombat II as the pinnacle of the series, though Mortal Kombat 3's faster gameplay and pumped-up combo system certainly added a lot to the series. By the time Mortal Kombat 4 came around, though, the arcade market wasn't in particularly good shape, and the new game's lackluster cookie-cutter gameplay and unimpressive 3D graphics didn't win it many fans. Some attempts were made to spin off characters from the series into their own games, resulting in a decent game based on Sub-Zero and an absolute low point for the series in a game based on Jax. Given the series' somewhat recent failures, it isn't difficult to assume that the latest Mortal Kombat would be another disappointing 3D fighter with a layer of blood splashed on top. But, surprisingly enough, that's far from true.
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance attempts to reinvent the series from the ground up. The subtitle refers to a pact between the series' two most evil playable characters, Shang Tsung and Quan Chi. The duo quickly take over the role of "evil masterminds" and set about on their deadly plan to take over the world. There's definitely more to it than that, though, and the storyline portions of the game are passable, but the exact specifics are better left to FAQ authors and the hardest of the series' hard-core fanbase. It suffices to say that a group of fighters, some good and some evil, have gotten together to duke it out to the death, and the safety of the entire Earth realm is at stake.
While every MK fan will be quick to think of at least one old Mortal Kombat character that should have been included in Deadly Alliance's roster, the characters are a good mix of old and new faces. Returning characters include Johnny Cage, Kano, Sonya, Jax, Cyrax, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Kung Lao, Raiden, Kitana, Quan Chi, Shang Tsung, and Reptile. For the most part, the new characters fit in to the universe really well. Frost, a sort of female version of Sub-Zero, is probably the strongest addition. Kenshi is a blind tai chi master who uses telekinetic powers, including Ermac's telekinetic slam from Ultimate MK3. Li Mei is a female fighter who seems as though she was taken directly out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Mavado has the hook swords of MK3's Kabal and grappling ropes that let him move around the arena quickly. Drahmin is a decomposing demon that attracts flies wherever he goes. Hsu Hao is involved in Kano's neck of the Mortal Kombat universe, and he looks like some sort of zombie cop with a radar display--which is actually his cybernetic heart--implanted in his chest. Nitara is a winged female vampire. Bo Rai Cho is a fat drunken master who can puke on command--his vomit acts like Sub-Zero's ground ice from Mortal Kombat II, causing foes to slip around uncontrollably.
The fighting system has been given a pretty extreme overhaul, to the point where you might initially think this game has little in common with previous Mortal Kombat games. But over time, it gets easier and easier to see the ties to previous installments in the series. Mortal Kombat 4 introduced weapons, and Deadly Alliance takes this concept one step further: Each character has two unarmed fighting stances and one weapon stance. You can cycle from stance to stance at the touch of a button, and the game's longer combos actually have style changes built right into them. Most of the game's fighting stances are actually from real martial arts, some of them very obscure, which is a cool little touch.
Meanwhile, the game ditches the uppercut move that has been one of the series' hallmarks since its inception. The combo system instead incorporates uppercut-style launchers into the fighters' attacks. Some fighters have multiple launchers, but everyone has at least one launcher and a string of moves that will lead up to that launcher. This lets you accomplish combos that are highly reminiscent of those of Mortal Kombat 4. You can combo up to a launcher, juggle by repeating the launcher, and finish it by connecting with a special move before the victim hits the ground. While the game's combo system focuses on the same sort of dial-a-combo gameplay that's been seen in the Tekken and Capcom Versus series for years, it does it in a way that gives the gameplay a distinct Mortal Kombat style, with plenty of blood and groaning thrown in to make things look exaggerated and painful. But the game is also strong enough on its own to appeal to people who haven't enjoyed previous games in the series.
Adding to the odd twists that longtime fans of the series will have to get used to is the drastically changed moves list. Characters haven't been entirely redesigned from the ground up or anything--Scorpion still has his spear, Sub-Zero shoots ice, Kung Lao throws his hat, and so on--but many other signature moves have been changed or removed. For instance, Scorpion can't teleport, Sub-Zero's slide and Raiden's torpedo have been replaced by more generic-looking shoulder charges, and Reptile can't even turn invisible. Also, some characters have more special moves than others. This fact doesn't ever make the game feel unbalanced, though, as the focus is weighted toward the combo system rather than centering on the relatively small number of special moves in the game.
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance to some extent takes on a more serious tone this time around, eliminating all the purely silly-looking finishing moves that crept into the series over the years. But that isn't to say that the game is completely humorless. The fatalities still have that same ludicrous sense about them as the best ones in the series have had, where you'd see far more blood and bones come out of an exploding body than would ever be possible. The little minigame from the original MK, "test your might," has returned, and it's just as much of a button-mashing festival as it was in the original. Test your might is also joined by "test your sight," which is actually an updated take on the "keep your eye on the can" bonus stages found in Midway's classic beer-pouring sim, Tapper. There are some nice little touches to be found throughout the game, such as how you can see Kenshi, the blind fighter, listening intently during the "test your sight" sequences.
The standard modes you'd expect in a fighting game are present here. You can play in an arcadelike setting against a ladder of computer-controlled players, or you can jump into versus mode to play against another player. As you'd expect from a fighting game, the versus mode is the highlight, especially since the computer AI in the single-player mode falls victim to predictable patterns and tricks, much like in previous MK games. Konquest mode is a training mode of sorts, which teaches you the basics of the gameplay and then lets you train with every character in the game. The training for each character takes you through 10 different sections and will show you the basic moves for each of the fighter's three stances, along with special attacks and a good collection of combo attacks. The game attempts to convey some back story through text that is displayed during mission briefings in konquest mode, though the constant stops and starts for text breaks get in the way of the flow. Also, considering the importance that the Mortal Kombat series has always put on its back story, it's surprising that these elements weren't fleshed out a bit here--some speech certainly would have been a welcome addition.
The other major section of the game is called the krypt. The game asks you to create a profile before you begin playing, and profiled players will earn kombat koins as they play in arcade or konquest mode. These coins are taken into the krypt, which contains a little under 700 different coffins all arranged in a huge hall, each of which has a different price in one of the game's five coin types on it. The object is to earn enough coins to purchase the game's coffins. You'll find hidden characters, new stages to fight in, and new costumes for the fighters in some of the pricey coffins, but for the most part, the unlockable material is a gigantic collection of concept art, photos, and other such images. You'll see photos of the development team, fan art, shots from a Mortal Kombat comic book, and an absolute ton of development sketches. While the concept of unlocking that much material sounds like a fantastic idea, in reality, saving up only to discover that you've purchased, say, a fuzzy screenshot of the Mortal Kombat 4 character-select screen or photos of a Mortal Kombat arcade machine can be a bit of a letdown. A higher concentration of only the coolest MK curiosities would have had a much bigger impact.
While Mortal Kombat's long-standing slant toward packing in a ton of secrets means that we may never know about absolutely everything hidden in the game, we can safely say that each of the game's characters has at least one fatality. The fatalities in Mortal Kombat 4 were supposed to mark a return to the series' gritty roots, but it's Deadly Alliance that actually fulfills this promise. While certain fatalities still seem a little misguided--such as when Quan Chi simply stands on his opponents' shoulders and yanks their necks up a few feet--the game's graphics engine does a great job of rendering the series' short, signature kill sequences. Scorpion tosses his spear through his victims' heads and rips their heads clean off. Kano reaches into his opponents and pulls out their hearts--followed by several other vital organs, just to be sure. Raiden holds his enemy over his head and shocks the body until it explodes. These are as graphic as Mortal Kombat fatalities have ever been.
Visually, the game has a lot going for it. Unlike Mortal Kombat 4, which basically fit all of the game's characters into a rigid animation template with incredibly generic results, every character in Deadly Alliance moves differently. From fighting stances to walking animations to attacks, the game's animation looks pretty solid. The game's textures, which are at their highest quality on the Xbox, look great on all three platforms. Also, Deadly Alliance is great at spewing out tons and tons of blood. Each hit to a sensitive spot results in a small explosion of red mist, and especially bloody attacks cause blood to roll down the game's character models on to the ground below, where it splatters and stains throughout the fight. The only thing that stands out as weird looking is the game's collection of projectiles, which occasionally look like nothing more than colored balls. All in all, Deadly Alliance does a good job of bringing Mortal Kombat's distinctive look into 3D.
The game's announcer serves the same purpose here that he has served for other games in the series. Player names are announced upon selection, and you'll still hear him say things like "flawless victory." Still, aside from some voice-overs in some story sequences, you can't help but think that some more voice in the story sequences would have added a lot to the game's atmosphere. The basic voices used in fighting haven't changed much, right down to the voice talent used for some of the game's move-related speech clips. Scorpion still shouts "Get over here!" when he sticks someone with his spear, Raiden still babbles unintelligible phrases when executing specials, and so on. The smacks, slaps, and cuts of fighting sound pretty good. Mortal Kombat fans will be impressed by the music, which isn't identical to music found in other games in the series, yet most of it feels like it would fit perfectly in the series' older entries..
Mortal Kombat is a 3D fighter that doesn't fall into the same trap that some other games have fallen into when making the 2D-to-3D transition. It also doesn't play much--or at all, for that matter--like other 3D fighters on the market. What you're left with is an unusual fighting game that does a great job of balancing the classic Mortal Kombat style with enough new additions to draw in people who aren't completely familiar with the rest of the series. Anyone looking for a wilder ride than the one offered by Tekken 4's or Virtua Fighter 4's comparatively straightforward martial arts battles should definitely check out Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance.